(Above: Trust me, you have heard this man at work.)
In many walks of life there are those that receive the credit, the adulation, and the recognition while a lot of the actual heavy lifting is done by others. Rock and roll is no exception. Yesterday I got word that bass player Joe Osborn passed away at the age of 81.
To the vast majority of music fans, Osborn isn’t a known entity. To those with a working knowledge of rock and roll history, though, he’s an essential figure. Osborn played bass with an outfit of session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew: performers who were called in to back some of the biggest bands in popular music and provide breadth and depth to the musical stylings. They were on everything. If it wasn’t Joe Osborn on bass, it was Carol Kaye. Hal Blaine played drums. Bill Pitman and Glen Campbell provided the guitars. We loved the music, and yet didn’t always know who was really making it. The Wrecking Crew remained largely a historical afterthought until the eponymous documentary on their work was released in 2015. (If you missed it, the trailer is here, and the whole doc is worth seeking out.)
Still, it’s hard to grasp just how many records they worked on. I started to pull up the credits that Osborn claimed, and damn, the list looks like my iPod. How does this playlist sound?
Rick Nelson, “Travelin’ Man”
Gary Lewis and the Playboys, “This Diamond Ring”
Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
The Mamas and the Papas, “Monday Monday”
Johnny Rivers, “Poor Side of Town”
Fifth Dimension, “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In”
Tommy Roe, “Dizzy”
The Carpenters, “Close To You,” “Top Of the World”
Neil Diamond, “Cracklin’ Rosie”
The Partridge Family, “I Think I Love You”
Simon and Garfunkel, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Helen Reddy, “I Am Woman” and “Delta Dawn”
Good, eh? Well, those are just the #1 records. Steve Hoffman compiled a list of the songs that made the Top 40 that featured Osborn’s bass, and there’s 197 titles on it. I mean, you could take this list, put it on shuffle over a transmitter, and grab a four share as an Oldies station without a whole lot of thought. There are some performers I see on this list a lot: The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, Spanky & Our Gang, Johnny Rivers, The Mamas and the Papas, Gary Lewis & the Playboys – artists that are all well-known to Oldies listeners. Add the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher if that’s not enough. Save Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Osborn provided the bass behind Simon and Garfunkel’s catalog. The next time you turn up “America” on a road trip? That’s him. This video features Joe playing a bit that you’ve heard countless times before, but imagine the bridge between “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” without it. You can’t.
So, how do you pick just one song, of all of these, to spotlight in an article like this? For me, it wasn’t hard. There’s one number one song I left off of the playlist above, and that’s “Windy” by the Association. It was a staple of every Oldies station I’ve ever worked for. I don’t even have to look twice to tell you that the intro time is 15 seconds long. That’s a fifteen second canvas for the DJ to do his thing, to build excitement over a record that’s been played millions of times in the last fifty years. But “Windy” has one of those intros that you love to talk over… and when you hit the post, you feel fantastic. And now, I know that every time I talked over that intro, it was Joe Osborn providing the background.
Hear it for yourself (or try talking over it, if you want to play DJ). You can hear “Windy” by clicking here.